Posts Tagged ‘TV science fiction’

When I was a child, being raised as a boy, I was kind of an isolated one. Not so isolated before the age of nine, when I had my first clear sense of gender variance, but even before then I would tend to play by myself (I was quite asthmatic which was also limiting) and was obsessed in general with cultural artifacts rather than people. 

Music to begin with, played on our Deccalian record player and then ultimately our Dansette. But very quickly comics (I stole a comic from a cafe when I was about four!) and TV, particularly science fiction. And love of SF TV led at around 12 to love of written science fiction, firstly through Isaac Asimov‘s collection of stories I, Robot, as I was a robot nut. And then in the teen years my musical tastes widened tremendously, so you can find many different types of music and artists on our shelves at home. So I guess I was pretty geeky, and socially awkward in my teens for all the usual reasons plus the transgender reasons on top.

Great Science-Fiction

Image via Wikipedia

Geek for some people is of course a negative term but I think it’s cool to be one (don’t like the term nerd however). And actually I’m an incredibly wide-ranging geek – I’m into all sorts of stuff. Which I think is one of the things that makes me good at my job – working with academic staff in all different disciplines across the University of East Anglia – because I am interested in what they’re up to and have enough geeky skills to talk a bit of their language and understand some of what they’re talking about, whether they’re a historian or teaching on a medical degree.

So I guess I know a lot about certain things (I can recognize whether a comic has been drawn by Steve Ditko, or Ron Embleton, or Barry Windsor-Smith, or Gene Colan, or Frank Bellamy, or Dave Gibbons … I’ll stop now), and a little about a lot. I ain’t no scientist, but I’ve heard of buckyballs.

But the reason I am writing about all this stuff is because a geek’s relationship to their geeky objects of interest is complicated. Initially it was just stuff I loved. And it was good stuff … it’s been kind of weird to treasure all this pop culture stuff as a child and then discover people teaching about it years later at universities. I didn’t see that coming based on the snobbery of some of the teachers when I was at university.

However as I became more troubled about my gender (and as an only child didn’t even have a sibling to consider daring to tell about my transness) some of these things became more a comfort blanket, a defence against the world, and an inert “friend” who would never contradict me.

So has that all changed since I’ve transitioned? Yes, but in slightly subtle ways. This is a kind of experimental bit of thinking here folks, but let me try and explain what I mean. My interest in music, for example, is kind of what I might define as “open-ended geekiness”, because the more you get interested in it the more possibilities open up.

I started as a child by liking Lonnie Donegan (you must hear his version of Frankie and Johnny) and Cliff Richard (well, I was a UK child of the sixties). But following my nose for interesting and different sounds has led me, to give a randomish selection, to Michael Nesmith’s post-Monkees career, Vaughan Williams, Little Feat, Maria Muldaur, the Thompson and Wainwright dynasties, Duke Ellington, David Lindley, Brian Wilson, Ian Dury, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, Goldfrapp, Natalie Merchant, Mint Royale (check out their version of the Ask the Family theme tune, I’m not kidding!), Soft Cell, Stevie Wonder, Timbuk 3, June Tabor, Billie Holiday, fantastic film composers like Bernard Herrmann, and the genius of Delia Derbyshire (whose work is known by almost everyone in the UK but whose name is known by almost none). I’ve left you a lot of stuff to look up there but with no links – consider it homework!

So although you could be a jazz obsessive (and there’s nothing wrong with that anyway) in my case music keeps steering me through more and more interesting doors and is endlessly rewarding. Latest joyous discovery? The Decemberists a few days ago.

I could write a similar list about movies, particularly after Basil Edwards, my English teacher at secondary school, introduced us to foreign movies. I have a wide-ranging interest in movies and television. And in due course, when home video technology began to develop in interesting directions, my interest in movies and TV also developed into an interest in these technologies, and in collecting.

I was one of the relatively few people in the UK to buy a laserdisc player in the 1980s (for younger readers, these were early double-sided videodiscs the size of old vinyl Lps). LD became a relatively successful format in the USA when it was re-focused at movie buffs, but was pretty unsuccessful in the UK so you had to be obsessed to find players and discs. And over time, with the development of DVD and other home cinema technologies, I became even more obsessed with getting a really good home set-up, with surround sound and based around the first really decent plasma TV in the UK (which I did, around 2002).

And I’m not dissing it – it’s great to watch movies on. But a couple of years after I’d set up my nice plasma, surround amp and speakers, DVD player, personal video recorder, then along came High Definition and Blu-Ray. And I felt that pressure, to keep up at the leading edge of tech etc etc.

Only I know that this kind of obsessive geekism was, in part, one of the ways in which I was avoiding facing up to my transness – I had a comforting hobby which was a lot of fun, and didn’t involve people much, and kept changing/evolving etc. But it was secondary to the real interest, which was movies – it was about a better way of seeing them to be sure. But on the technology side, I guess I’m focussing on the fact that the technology was “obedient” and “loyal” and did what I wanted – and the outside world wasn’t like that and I always felt would bite me if I was honest about my gender identity.

That may sound a weird connection to make, but I think it’s about putting energy into something else because I was too scared to put in energy to dealing with my true self. And the reason I think there’s a connection is that although my love of music continues, and my love of movies continues, my obsession with keeping on the teetering edge of technology has gone.

Initially I thought it was just because transition keeps you very busy – at this stage it’s like having a second full-time job. But actually, I don’t need the comfort blanket anymore. Because the other thing that has changed is I am much less of a loner than I used to be, and much more of a social person. To put it like that is something of a caricature, ‘cos I did have a lot of fun with friends and family pre-transition, but it’s an interesting difference of emphasis. A lot of preoccupations from before I acknowledged I was a woman have changed, shifted, in some cases disappeared. And a lot of new interests have started to arise because, I think, I am free to be myself (my true self) for the first time in my life.

So the good geeky bits (which I use in life and work) are preserved, and the geeky bits about hiding from the world because I was scared of it have receded. I was much shyer trying to live as a man than I am now I’ve accepted I was always a woman and am able to live as one.

But there’s another, final dimension to this, which is that I wanted to try and be creative before I transitioned – to write, to perform, but I was generally too scared to have a proper go at it. So I went to work for a comics/SF distribution company, rather than try and write. And I acquired a huge music collection rather than play music. Everything always at one, or more, remove. I got dragged into doing a bit of writing in the end, but only ‘cos other people believed in me, not ‘cos I did.

I am not trying to generalize about trans people here. Many are very successful before they transition and I was not totally unsuccessful, but I made a lot of early career/life choices based on having a very low opinion of myself. But lot of trans people do feel very stuck, because they can’t see how to engage fully with life. And they find ways round it, but they are often ways which involving hiding and denying their truest self, and therefore not taking opportunities when they present themselves.

That’s changed for me now – I have a sense of life and creative opportunities opening up, just as I wished they would in my younger years because, finally, I believe in myself. And my geekiness has evolved – it no longer dominates me, it’s just part of my toolkit.


Read Full Post »

Probably not … but it makes for a possibly Google-friendly article title  …

The Mark 2 fibreglass (Tom Yardley-Jones) Tard...

Image via Wikipedia

The idea that the Doctor, lead character in the world’s longest-running SF TV series Doctor Who, might become female is sure to spark controversy among the show’s most hardcore fans. The UK mainstream audience, on the other hand (in the UK Doctor Who is regularly the biggest non-soap drama in the ratings) only occasionally gets a whiff of this controversy.

Fans tend to resist the idea instinctively, influenced of course by the character now having a television history stretching back nearly 50 years (47 years today, in fact) beginning in one of the BBC’s lowest-tech sixties studios in Lime Grove, West London, and currently residing in purpose-designed facilities in Cardiff, shot in high definition and supported by cutting-edge CGI.

I number myself as a hardcore fan, with a long-term relationship to this wonderful character stretching back to my early childhood. So I have a vested interest. For those unfamiliar with Doctor Who (familiarity varies outside the UK), it concerns an extra-terrestrial hero who travels throughout space and time in a remarkable vehicle (the Tardis) which was disguised, during a visit to the UK in 1963, as a Police telephone box (very common on UK streets at the time), only for the technology to break down and the Tardis to become stuck in that form. Although in fact the reason for that is budgetary – it was cheaper to stick with one prop rather than devise a new one for each story, so the Tardis’ ability to disguise itself became broken. By such happy accidents are cuiltural icons made.

When the actor playing the Doctor, William Hartnell, had to leave due to ill health the BBC wanted to carry on making the programme and hit upon another pragmatic, though potent idea – regeneration. The idea that, when the Doctor faces death, his body renews itself, and he gains a new appearance, thus allowing a new actor to step into the role. When second Doctor Patrick Troughton wanted to leave it was obvious that the process could be repeated, and another actor found (Troughton was my absolute favourite until the 2005 revival delivered a succession of fine actors in the role). And so a tradition was born, with the ability to reinvent the role and the programme. And in due course, everytime regeneration looms, speculation as to who will be the new Doctor is now national UK news.

Each actor playing the Doctor has playeed him differently – the character might be described as having the same essential characteristics but a body and personality that allows him to express those in different ways. I often wondered, while watching these adventures, what it would be like if you really changed your appearance, and outward behaviour, and had to relate to the world in a different way as a result. Now I know what it feels like to regenerate, because in a way I’ve done just that.

The first time the idea of the Doctor regenerating as a woman leaked out significantly into the public consciousness was during the tenure of John Nathan-Turner as Producer. JNT, as he was known, was happy to say almost anything that might yield publicity for the show. He teased the audience about dispensing with the Police Box version of the Tardis (note to all producers in perpetuity – never do this). And among other things, he did periodically speculate about such a radical piece of recasting. The only time it has fleetingly ‘kind of’ happened, is in the spoof Doctor Who story The Curse of the Fatal Death, penned by Steven Moffat a few years back for Comic Relief. The luminous Joanna Lumley briefly became the Doctor – you can find it on YouTube.

Whenever this idea came up, as a fan I totally pooh-poohed it. Shortly before transitioning, I attended a talk by then show-runner Russell T Davies (look, I am a hardcore fan, OK?) at which someone asked the question. RTD also kind of pooh-poohed it, but also noted that “the more you all talk about it, the more likely it is it will happen one day”. Scant months from regeneration myself, I still firmly resisted the idea. After transitioning indeed, I have continued, until recently, to firmly resist the idea. And yet …

The Doctor has had a variety of (mostly) human travelling companions, sometimes one, sometimes more than one, and both male and female. However since 1970 the most typical configuration has been male Time Lord travelling with one female companion. This was almost always depicted as a paternal-style relationship until RTD’s revival faced up to some of the implications. One consequence of the predominance of female companions is that the programme has provided something of a running commentary on women’s roles in British society and how they are depicted on UK television. Until the 2005 reboot one other consequence is a tendency for most companions to find themselves in the role of subservient female asking questions of the “wiser” male (for the benefit of the audience and plot advancement).

Casting a woman would not only challenge any sub-textual elements of sexual politics, it would clearly change the character of the Doctor more radically, not least because in the modern era of television the pressure is on to cast the role with young and more conventionally charismatic (if occasionally quirky) lead actor. Hartnell was certainly quirky but had neither of the other two characteristics.

While the current makers of the show are certainly conscious of how they need to cast the role in a way that meets the expectations of contemporary audiences, I don’t mean to suggest that both RTD and his successor Steven Moffat haven’t trusted their own judgement to take bold, and often hugely successful decisions in respect of the show – they haven’t just “done the demographics”.  Christopher Eccleston, cast by the RTD team, was to begin with a tortured soul, and in many of the early episodes Billie Piper‘s feisty character Rose Tyler often initiated the action, solved problems and saved the day. The Doctor/Rose pairing put the companion relationship on an almost unheard-of equal footing, something that the programme makers have run with since.

So if the current creative team took the decision to cast a woman, I’m sure they’d pull off the challenge magnificently (Teletubby Daleks notwithstanding). But could the casting of the Doctor as female also play a part in increasing public awareness of, and acceptance of, trans issues? I think it could, if handled correctly.

The one thing that has changed since the programme came back is the attitude towards continuity and backstory. When RTD first revived the show in 2005 he was anxious to minimize continuity as the show had been off the air (apart from a one-off revival) for 16 years. He brilliantly trod the line of making it recognisably the show it had always been while making it totally accessible to anyone who had never seen Doctor Who before. My kids lapped it up from day one, to my enormous pleasure.

The first “revived” year was a phenomenal success, giving RTD the confidence to include more elements of the Doctor’s past, including a former companion, Sarah-Jane Smith. Since then, like icebergs with a homing instinct, large chunks of continuity have been re-integrated, now that everyone knows about tardises and Gallifrey.

And that’s why having a female Doctor could send a powerful, positive message. Admittedly, the Doctor’s transition, though painful (almost always involving literal death, folowed by rebirth) would be almost instant – not something many trans people could claim as their own experience. But it might send a subliminal, and possibly not so subliminal message.

As the tradition of the Doctor re-encountering old friends, as well as foes, has become a tradition of the revived version (the periodic return of Captain Jack and Rose, and even stretching back, via the Sarah-Jane spin-off to Jo Grant), characters would find themselves having to respond to the news, and reality, that the man they once knew was now a woman. Just as trans people’s friends, families and colleagues have to do. And as RTD always managed to include, often subtly, messages about accepting and celebrating difference, maybe the crossing of this particular boundary could get viewers, especially younger viewers thinking.

So, finally, I’m coming round to the idea, at least tentatively. The show has already had at one character who, it’s hinted, may have a trans history (the [ultimately redeemed-ish] villain Cassandra). Maybe it’s the lead character’s turn …

Read Full Post »